The Stones that built Cambridge

Goldholme employs several masons that live in the city of Cambridge, we are proud to have supplied countless projects in and around the city.

This fascinating article will take the reader back through time to the early 1400’s. It covers the various building stones used in the construction of Cambridge through the ages. There is reference to transportation from quarry to development site and an indication of costs of the stone and its transportation. The research was greatly assisted by a publication called The Architectural History of the University of Cambridge by the late Robert Willis, published in 1886.

The city of Cambridge has no building stone of its own, sitting on gault mudstone, there is a small amount of chalk to the south east of the county and some limestone outcropping to a small area in the north western corner of the county. Medieval Cambridge was principally built in timber, the exceptions being ecclesiastical buildings, colleges, large houses, bridges and the castle! From early medieval times, limestone was brought in from Rutland and Lincolnshire to the north and Northamptonshire, to the west via barges on the Rive Nene and over various fenland drains.

Car stone from Norfolk was occasionally used along with flint which built many churches but due to the nature of these materials most buildings would either be round or would have brick dressings and corner details. Flint would be either whole or knapped. Large quantities of chalk were used in construction especially between the 13th and 14th centuries. Evidence of chalk (clunch) can be found in footings including the castle chimneys, boundary walls, in the construction of St John’s College, Trinity College and in St Mary’s the Great. Chalk quarries were situated at Bunwell, Swaffham, Cherry Hinton Reach and Isleham, Barrington and Haslingfield. These were connected by canals, making transportation relatively simple. The downside was that chalk has a short life, for example most of the facing stone at Trinity required replacement after 150 years.


The 1400s


In 1400, construction began on King’s Hall at Trinity and a substantial wall along the riverbank, using brick, ragstone, and chalk (clunch) from Hynton, likely the old name for Cherry Hinton and Barrington.


King’s Hall Chapel


In 1446, master mason Reginald Ely started the chapel, credited with its design, using magnesium limestone from Tadcaster, Yorkshire. In 1461, upon hearing of King Henry VI’s defeat in the War of the Roses, the masons halted work and fled. Work resumed in 1476 under John Worlich, who had worked with Ely 20 years earlier and now became the master mason. Simon Clark joined in 1477, designing the tracery window on the east elevation and other fine details within the chapel. That year, stone came from Peterborough and Clipsham, with John Bell sent to Huntingdon for additional stone purchases. In 1480, evidence shows stone purchased from Weldon, Hasilborough, and Ancaster in Lincolnshire. Work stopped for 20 years following Richard III’s death in August 1485, affecting 89 masons and the master mason. The quarry referred to as Peterborough is likely Barnack, used for Peterborough Cathedral and Burghley House. Dr. Jennifer Alexander identifies the quarry at Hasilborough as Heselburgh by Heydour, part of the Ancaster group. In 1508, construction resumed, and in 1509, records show large stone purchases from Clipsham, Weldon, and Yorkshire quarries. Marble or Kentish ragge was used for church floor paving. White magnesium limestone from Thefdale or Huddleston was essential during Henry VI’s reign; after his deposition, oolite from Northamptonshire or Rutland replaced it. References to Clipsham and Weldon stone appear above the magnesium limestone level, except for the north and south porch vaults, built with magnesium limestone from Hampole, Yorkshire. The chapel completed in 1515. In 1560, Weldon stone was used on Trinity’s western library, and Corpus Christi College, built from 1583, used oolitic limestone from King’s Cliffe, Northamptonshire.


The 1500s


From 1518 to 1519, masons built a lodge at Trinity College’s entrance and started King’s Hall tower, purchasing 15 tons of stone from King’s Cliffe, Northamptonshire. The Caius building emerged between 1564 and 1573, using Ramsey stone and Freestone from King’s Cliffe and Weldon, purchased from Sir Henry Cromwell. White stone (clunch) came from Haslingfield and Barrington, with a small amount from Barnwell near Oundle. King’s Cliffe stone cost “4 shillings ye tonne at ye pit”, used in Corpus Christi chapel’s porch (1583). Costs included cart carriage to Gunworth waterside (3 shillings plus wharfage). John Martin, freemason, earned 14 pence per day visiting quarries and accompanying stone transport. EDW Buck carried stone by boat from Gunwell to Jesus Green for 3 shillings plus wharfage. Two tons of Weldon stone and Sussex marble were used in the Chapel.


Trinity College


In 1559, reclaimed building stone came from the Greyfriars in Cambridge and Ramsey Abbey in Huntingdonshire. Newly quarried limestone arrived from Barrington and Weldon, transported via the river Ouse into Cambridge.


Emmanuel College


Starting in 1588, projects included the Master’s Lodge, Great Gates, and outer wall, with large quantities of reclaimed stone from Cambridge Castle. Corpus Christi College’s separate chapel began in 1579, using 146 tons of reclaimed stone from Thorney Abbey, supplied by the Earl of Bedford, and 182 loads from Thomas Wendy’s Barnwell quarry.


The 1600s


In 1605, work began on the Corpus Christi College hall, using white stone (clunch) from Barrington and Eversden, limestone from King’s Cliffe, reclaimed Ragge from Cambridge Castle, and Northamptonshire slates. In 1639, Thomas Gumball (or Gumbold) started the east gate of Clare Hall, using Raunds marble for its grain and texture. In 1637, Clare Hall ordered 40,000 Ely bricks, ashlar stone, and blocks from Ketton and Weldon, clunch from Haslingfield, and roofing slate from Collyweston. The parliamentary party seized wood and stone from the site for fortifying the castle during the English Civil War. Emmanuel College chapel started in 1668, primarily using Ketton stone. Trinity library began in 1680, with master mason Robert Gumbold using Ketton Stone for this 10-year project designed by Christopher Wren. Portland stone gained popularity for refacing damaged facades and public buildings initially built in brick.


The 1700s


Stone usage in Cambridge slowed in the 18th century. William Whiting contracted to build Trinity Hall in 1740, using 6” thick Ashlar from Ketton, with Esquire Bedells as the architect.


The 1800s


The Fitzwilliam Museum began in 1837, laying a 5-tonne Portland block with much ceremony. Bath stone became a preferred choice for church refurbishments, formal stone, and window/door mouldings. Daulting stone was used on Pembroke College’s new court in 1883. Welsh slate flooded in via railways, causing the decline of Swithland slate production in Leicestershire. Ham Hill stone on the Bridgepnt stone formation, described as golden yellow-brown, was used in Trinity Hall’s Master’s Lodge and Westcott House at the Theological College. A small amount of Doulting stone from Somerset was used in Pembroke College’s new court in 1883.


The 1900s


From 1901 to 1904, Ancaster stone was used in the Sedgwick Geology Museum’s medieval school. Portland stone was used in several colleges and administrative buildings, such as The Cripps Building at St John’s College in 1967. Limited quantities of Purbeck stone from Dorset were used in the Second Courts of St John’s. York flagstones from West/South Yorkshire, a fine-grained sandstone, were suitable for paving, flagstones, and plinths. Sussex marble and Kentish Rag were also used for paving. Portland stone later became popular for high-quality cladding panels and formal stone in several universities and administrative buildings. Purbeck stone, described as dark grey shelly limestone, was used in limited quantities for the first and second counts at St John’s College, Cambridge. Ketton stone regained popularity from the early 17th century and was also used to re-clad many public-facing earlier brick walls.


Ancaster Stone


Ancaster stone, known for its streaky bacon appearance, was widely used in colleges, churches, and chapels. It came from the great limestone belt running through Lincolnshire. Ancaster played a significant role in early Cambridge, used in King’s College in 1480. It regained favour in the 19th century across Cambridge, including the Gothic revival chapel at St John’s College and Tree Court buildings at Gonville and Caius College. Following a fire in 1852, Trinity Hall was rebuilt with Ancaster stone, along with the re-facing of Petercourt old court. Ancaster’s importance led to royal control in the 14th century due to Windsor Castle’s massive building project.


Quarries That Built Cambridge


The Kings Cliffe old quarry in Northamptonshire and associated quarries were active from the late medieval to post-medieval periods but have long ceased to exist. The chalk pits of Cherry Hinton are abandoned and flooded. The Weldon stone quarries, covering 25 hectares south and southwest of the Northamptonshire village, showed many abandoned quarries and shafts in the 1970s. Swithland slate quarries became uneconomical with the mid-1800s railway arrival, flooding the country with cheap Welsh slate. The old pits are abandoned and water-filled. Clipsham stone was originally quarried at seven locations, with two still active today. Norfolk’s car stone is still quarried by two companies. The chalk (clunch) pits became abandoned, with some becoming part of a now-closed cement works. Ham stone is still quarried from two pits on Ham Hill. Ancaster stone is quarried at Castle Pits quarry by Goldholme Stone Ltd. and Wilsford. Castle Pits is the original Ancaster quarry within a lost 32-acre fort built by the ninth legion in AD 48. The Ketton quarries are owned by Hanson Cement, mainly used for cement manufacture. The Peterborough quarries, likely referring to Barnack, built Peterborough Cathedral from Barnack ragge, worked out by the late 1400s. Doulting stone is available again after a period of closure. Ketton stone, now controlled by a cement works, has moved considerably from the original quarry location, possibly differing from medieval characteristics. Bath stone is available from two mines, both distant from original extraction locations. Portland stone is still mined by three companies. Purbeck stone is still available.

Queens College

Founded by King Henry VI originally called The College of St. Bernard.

On the north side of the Principle Quadrangle is the Walnut Tree Court. The building that forms the east side of the court was built between 1614 and 1622 by architects Gilbert Wigge and Henry Mann. The buildings were principally brickwork. Masons were paid in January 1619 for supplying one and a half thousand roof tiles. The build took two years and cost £886.9S

Chapel Hall 

The foundation stone was laid in 1448. The chapel was replaced during the years 1773 and 1775. The new chapel would have a Ketton stone floor with black dots. The chapel passage would be paved in York Stone. Galway marble would be used for the reredos supports. The Essex building at Pump Court was built of white brick with Ketton and Portland stone dressings.

Pembroke College

Pembroke College is situated on land once known as Swynecroft or St Thomas Leys. It formerly extended from Trumpington street to Regent Street. The northern boundary is called Pembroke Street running along King’s Ditch. The land was originally bought in 1346. The college was expanded many times as further land was acquired. There is evidence that the building work certainly begun before the year 1363. The mud wall around the garden didn’t last for very long, it was replaced in 1482 by stone wall from clunch (chalk). Reference to the stone used in the building of Pembroke College is scant. Between the years 1663 and 1665 Christopher Wren used Ketton stone for the end façade of the Chapel. Stone from two smaller quarries had been purchased namely Stamford and Casterton. These stones were similar to Ketton but slightly courser. It is possible that the stone masons and specifier believed they were buying Ketton which lies a few miles to the west. During the year 1883 George Gilbert Scott designed a new building fronting Pembroke Street. The stone of choice would be Doulting stone from the Chelynch bed. It is believed that a quantity of Clipsham stone was also used.

Jesus College

The site of Jesus College was until 1497 that of the Benedictine nunnery of St. Mary and St. Rhadegund. The grounds are bounded to the south by Jesus Lane, on the east and north by common ground known in ancient times as Greencroft but more recently Midsummer common and Butt Green. To the west is a narrow street called Park Street previously called Garlic Fair Lane due to the annual fair held by the nuns. Barnack stone was used in the church of the nunnery of St. Radegund and can still be seen in the cloister court. During the 15 century Ketton and Weldon stone was used for new building work. It is documented that Ketton stone was used for new building work. It is documented that Ketton stone was purchased in the late 15th century. In 1569 to 1570 AD the Masters Lodge was slated. This was probably with collyveston stone. In 1638 the first stone was laid on a 5-year project on the range to the north side of the entrance court. The stone was gifted by Christopher Lord Hatton and was stated to be from Weldon. Robert Grumbold built the main gateway (The Foregate) in 1703. The Grumbolds were known to have connections with the Weldon Stone Quarries. In 1815 an agreement was signed with Peter Bernasconi to cover the exterior of the chapel with roman cement render, the cost being £440. His brief was to make it look like natural stone.

Trinity College, The Bishops Hostel

Builder Robert Minchin was awarded the contract which stated: “And that he the said Robert Minchin will before the said first day of November frame, erect, set up perfect and finish for the said college all the said building and at the only proper cost and charges of him the said Robert Minchin will find and provide all and manner of materials whatsoever which shall be fit and needful to be used in or about the said building.” The contract was sealed in 1669. The total price being £1180 the building must be completed by 1671.

Trinity Chapel

During the year 1556/57 the work is in full progress. A heading “The expenses of the new Chapel” contain an account of wages to workman over a 36-week period. 7 freemasons, 4 roughmasons were employed. Materials were bought from Greyfriers Abbey amounting to 2.950 loads of stone. 192 loads of reclaimed stone were bought from Peterhouse.

Clare Hall

Founded in 1326 by Richard Badew, originally called University Hall. In 1856 the name was changed to Clare College. Clare is said to be the poorest of the Cambridge colleges with assets estimated at just £32.7 million. It is also one of the oldest. Professor Willis’ architect once described it as Cambridge’s most beautiful building more like a palace then a college. Little is known about the early building materials. The early stone used would have certainly been clunch (chalk). The sources of clunch that supplied Cambridge were Cherry Hinton, Reach, Borwell and Islehom to the north east and Eversden, Haslingfield and Barrington to the south east. Between the years 1420 to 1430 a library was being built along with a substantial wall along the riverbank. This stonework would have been undoubtedly clunch although reclaimed stone was used in the footings. In 1638 large quantities of bricks were bought in. The bursar however saw a financial saving in buying in clay known as brick earth and had brick’s manufacturer on site. The earth was recorded as being purchased from Mr Roger Wilford, the price for an acre of brick earth was twelve pounds. On the 5th of February 1632 Mr Alderman was paid 6D (pence) for brick earth, enough to make 13 score and eight thousand bricks. In may the 31st 1641 William King of Ely was paid for supplying 40,000 Ely bricks to be delivered to Clare Hall and half to King’s College. During this same period Edwood Woodroofe was charged with securing wood, ashlar stone and block stone from Ketton in Rutland and from Weldon in Northants, Clunch from Haslingfield and a quantity of roofing slates from Collyweston in Rutland. John Westley was the master mason the building was the court. In May 1638 construction work commenced on the bridge and the east range this would be followed by work to the west ranges. The work was said to take three years. 

Stone carvers were paid including George Woodroofe for carving two lions faces upon the pedestal of the gate and four corinthiam heads, George Tonson was paid for gate finishings. On January the 18th 1638 Thomas Grumball was paid three shillings for a draft design of the bridge. In 1640 a mason called Gilby was paid for working stone for the battle mounts. During this same year building work stopped due to the outbreak of the civil war. The foundations had been completed on the west range when work stopped. The building materials were all seized for strengthening Cambridge Castle. Work didn’t resume until 1669 when Robert Grumbold and his partner Mr Bradwell along with a number of stone sawyers were employed to continue the build. 10 shillings a linear foot was paid for 6 mullion windows an individual recorded as Mr Wise was paid for supplying a stone called great Cornish (possibly Cornish granite) for work on the River Front. The Quadrangle was finally completed in 1715. Ketton stone has been much used to repair the 17th century buildings.

Gonville and Caius

The site of Gonville and Caius College is bounded on the north by Trinity Lane (formerly St Michals Lane), on the south by Senate House passage, on the east by Trinity Street (formerly High Street) and on the west by Trinity Hall Lane (previously called Milne Street).

The Gate and Tower Gonville Court

During the years 1564 to 1573 there are references to purchasing stone from Ramsay. Both freestone and ragge stone the free stone is a high-quality stone that can be laid in any direction, the ragge usually refers to sharp-edged stone which lies close to the surface. For cutting and carriage by land and water the purchase price was £254. 19 shillings and 8 pence. Interestingly there were purchases from Sir Henry Cromwell from Ramsey Wood at the same time, this suggests that the quarry from which the stone came was in this same ownership. Free stone was also bought from King’s Cliffe quarry and from Weldon at a cost of £101 three shillings and 5 pence. This included digging and carriage by land and water, white stone (whyte) was bought from Haslingield and Barrington for £91. 3 shillings and 5 pence. Freemasons were paid the sum of £337. 11 shillings and 7 pence for work between michaelmas 1564 and midsummer. During the year 1573 the carver received £7. and four the roughmason £97. 8 shillings.

Gate of Honour and Chapel Tower

Records show the purchase of stone during the 15th and 16th century from Barington (clunch) freestone from King’s Cliffe and white stone from Haslingfield. There are records showing that collyweston slate was purchased for the roof of Caius Court built between 1565 and 1569.

The Gate of Virtue

Designed by amateur architect John Caius in 1567 in a baroque style and drawn by William Wilkins architect, the stone adopted included that from Haslingfield and from King’s Cliffe unfortunately by the mid-19th century the effects of the weather had caused the surface to peel off to such extent that it was difficult to appreciate the delicacy of the carvings. The cornice was described as much broken and many interesting features had completely disappeared. Ramsey freestone and ragge along with barnwell stone from a village close to Oundle Northants were purchased in the late 1600s.

In a contract for the Legge building dated 1618 with builder John Atkinson there is much reference to the use of freestone and of white clunch. The contract stated that John would finish the work by the feast of All Saints next. The walls were described as brick laid (bricke) with stone infill. All of the corners thereof to be set with quoins (coyns) of freestone the same walls to be the thickness of three brick and a half.

During the years 1754 to 1756 Gouville Court was refaced in ashlar stone. The stone being Ketton. During the year 1815 it was agreed that the buildings in tree court be plastered in roman cement. In 1868 the gateway was moved to its present position in the Senate House Passage, the entire surface was rendered in cement. Clipsham stone has been used for repair on the Gate of Honour. Ancaster stone was used on Tree Court for dressings when re-fashioned in 1870 to a Loire Chateau style. In 1934 Portland stone was used on the Market Place façade of the new range at St Michaels Court. 


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